Agency claims it
LIEBERMAN AND ERIK N. NELSON
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: June 4,
A Jewish family who came from Yemen to Rockland became the
center of international controversy yesterday after a
pro-Israel agency claimed it rescued family members from the
As soon as Na'ama Nahari and five of her 12 children landed
in Israel on Wednesday, the Jewish Agency claimed she and her
family had been held against their will in Monsey by members
of the Satmar Hasidic community, which brought the family to
the United States in 1998.
The agency's assertions were denied yesterday by one of
Nahari's children in Monsey and by Chaim Fruend, a Kiryas Joel
resident who said he brought the Nahari family to the United
States from the Arab country. Fifteen members of the Nahari
family remain in New York.
The exodus of Nahari and five of her children to Israel
pitted an agency that helps Jews immigrate to Israel against
the Satmars, who oppose the state of Israel until it is
established by the coming of the Messiah. The Satmars have
actively brought Yemenite Jews to the United States rather
than Israel for nearly two decades.
"I have no idea why they made up those things, these lies,"
Yechil Nahari, 23, of Monsey said yesterday of the Jewish
Agency. "We are free to do what we want and the Satmars helped
us a lot. My mother went to Israel because her mother is very
sick. No one tried to stop her."
Mezal Nahari, 20, one of Nahari's daughters in Monsey, said
her mother took the younger children because the youngsters
wanted to be with her. She spoke for her father, Saeed,
because he doesn't speak English.
"I don't know if they are coming back," she said yesterday.
Michael Landsberg, who runs the Jewish Agency's Aliyah
Delegation in North America, said yesterday that he respects
and understands Yechil Nahari's views.
Landsberg said the agency first attempted to bring the
whole family to Israel in December. He said their departure
was stopped when two of the younger children couldn't make the
flight because they were taken on a "play date" at the last
minute by the Satmars.
"The family wanted to come to Israel," Landsberg said. "A
representative of the family, just like other families in the
past, came to us and asked for assistance to move to Israel."
Landsberg, whose family died in the Holocaust, said the
organization's mission is to bring Jews to Israel, or rescue
them from oppressive conditions. For decades, the agency has
spirited Jewish refugees out of nations including Syria, Iran
"The Satmar promised to take them to a 'golden land,' but
when they got here they found themselves in more of a
Yiddish-speaking shtetl," Landsberg said, using the Yiddish
word for small, insular town. "I am serving my people."
A Israeli Consulate official in New York would neither
confirm nor deny the report, but said smuggling is definitely
not something Israel is not involved in under any
Israel does embrace the "law of return" principle, which
allows the government to grant immigration visas to those Jews
who wish to return to Israel. Israel and organizations like
the Jewish Agency spend millions of dollars yearly on housing,
education, and job training for refugees.
The issue of Yemenites and other Jews being spirited from
Arab countries started with the founding of Israel in 1948,
when nearly 90 percent of Yemen's 60,000 Jews were airlifted
to Israel in what became known as "Operation Magic Carpet."
Many of the Yemenite Jews have maintained their
ultra-Orthodox traditions going back 2,500 years. The
traditions include reading the Bible in Aramaic. During the
past two decades, the Satmar Hasidim have raised charitable
funds among themselves to bring Yemenite Jews to the United
The Nahari family is among more than 168 Yemenite Jews who
were brought to the United States from 1993 to 1998, Freund
said yesterday. Many of the children were placed with families
in Kiryas Joel, a Satmar community in Orange County, and
attended schools in the community.
Freund said he started helping them after a Yemenite rabbi
wanted the children educated in Jewish traditions, not the
secular traditions in Israel. Freund said he had the approval
from the community's rabbis in Monsey and Kiryas Joel. He said
he many of the children brought here would go back to Yemen,
Israel or London.
"We wanted to help Jewish people," Freund said. "We believe
in giving charity and our charity was to bring them out from
Yemen. We teach them Yiddish, English and help educate them.
We respect them and help them keep their traditions."
Freund said he told Na'ama Nahari that if she left for
Israel, she might have trouble getting back into the United
States because of her immigration status. Freund said she had
a green card.
Critics contend the Yemenite Jews are being used by the
Satmars and, at times, Israel, and are losing their identity
Asrim Issak, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of
New York, said yesterday that the Satmars respect the Yemenite
Jews' devout Judaism and ancient traditions. But, he said, the
Satmars don't want the Yemenites immigrating to Israel. He
said Satmar schools that accept Yemenite children force them
to speak Yiddish and take up Satmar religious customs.
"I am critical of the Satmars and anyone else that bring
Jews out of Yemen without a plan to help them," Issak said.
"They take them out of Yemen and throw them into the streets
without housing, education and jobs."
Moshe Friedman, secretary to Satmar Grand Rebbe Moses
Teitelbaum, called the accusations that the Yemenite Jews were
held against their will and exploited "ridiculous." He said
the Israeli media, advocacy groups and immigration agencies
just want to discredit the Satmars and people like Fruend for
their charitable work on behalf of Jews.
"Some of the Yemenite people have changed their mind and
either don't want to be religious or want to leave," Friedman
said. "If they want to go to Israel, that's fine. We don't
stop anyone. We don't recruit people."
When Nahari and her children arrived at Ben Gurion
International Airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, The Israeli
media and Jewish Agency officials were waiting.
Nahari, her three daughters and two sons, ranging in age
from 2 to 11, first visited with Nahari's mother in Rehovot
and then settled into their temporary quarters in the Israeli
government absorption center, south of Tel Aviv.
Such centers are found throughout Israel, featuring spartan
apartments, subsidized classes in modern Hebrew, cultural
activities and job placement services.
"They're petrified," said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish
Agency spokesman in Israel. "They're worried about the fate of
her husband and four (additional) children."
The Satmars have brought dozens of Yemenite Jews to New
York "under the pretext that if they come to Israel, they will
be forced to lose their religion, they will be forced to lead
a secular life," Jankelowitz said.
The agency has "rescued" other Yemenite Jewish families
from New York and two families from a Hasidic sect outside of
London, Jankelowitz said.
"They take away their passports and they are held hostage,"
he said, adding that refugees from Yemen are used in the
Satmars' appeals for donations, "but the money never gets to
One of Nahari's daughters spoke New York-accented English
to Israeli television crews and other media after arriving at
Ben Gurion Airport, saying she looked forward to life in
When asked if the Jewish Agency was doing what it has
accused the Satmar of doing, Jankelowitz said "that's total
hogwash. No one kidnapped them. They came on their own free
Monsey Rabbi David Eidensohn, who is Hasidic but not
affiliated with the Satmars, said Yemenite Jews have a
difficult time adjusting to the United States. He said the
ultra-Orthodox Yemenite community is respected because their
members maintained the ancient cabalist traditions of Judaism.
"People who come from a different country and a primitive
lifestyle may not find living here easy," he said. "They are a
lost community that really can't find its roots. Some of the
Yemenite and Jews have made the transition and some saw the
Zionists as their saviours. This whole issue involving the
Yemenite Jews is very complicated and doesn't lend itself to a
black and white situation."
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